HERCULES -- A growing public campaign is putting pressure on the Contra Costa County district attorney to drop battery charges against a transgender teen -- charges that were filed after days of taunting and harassment by classmates erupted into a fight at Hercules High School.
A petition on Change.org posted Wednesday by the sister of 16-year-old Jewlyes Gutierrez has garnered media and public attention from around the country, said Charles Ramsey, president of the West Contra Costa school board. He questioned why the District Attorney's Office, which has limited resources, is pursuing a matter that he believes had already been resolved.
"People are talking about this," he said. "It doesn't seem to be fair. You're prosecuting a victim here? It seems like this is really a school issue. They took care of it at the school site."
The students involved in the fight were suspended and later apologized to each other, Ramsey said. Since the incident, there has been no further harassment, he added.
The petition by Valerie Poquiz says Gutierrez was taunted and bullied because of her gender identity. After one of her classmates spat gum in her face, Gutierrez, 16, sought help from the assistant principal, but the issue was not properly addressed, the petition states.
"On Nov. 15, 2013, Jewlyes was pushed over the edge," according to the petition. "Due to continued harassment, a fight ensued. Out of fear of physical violence, Jewlyes finally stood up for herself. Several girls who were tormenting my sister then physically attacked her."
By early Friday afternoon, 3,444 supporters had signed the petition. In addition, several people sympathetic to Gutierrez ¿have written letters to the District Attorney's Office asking that the charges be dropped, and ¿gender-based-rights organizations from around the country have offered support, Deputy public defender Kaylie Simon said. If the charges are not dropped, Gutierrez faces a misdemeanor hearing Feb. 5 -- just one week after a Jan. 29 school board meeting where trustees are expected to unveil revised policies aimed at creating safer campuses and protecting against sexual and gender-based harassment.
Ilona Turner, legal director of the Transgender Law Center, said the district attorney has the discretion to decide whether to bring charges.
"We call on him to drop these criminal charges immediately and instead to work with the families and students involved to find an alternative means of resolving their conflict without putting an already vulnerable young person through a criminal prosecution," Turner said in a news release.
Gutierrez said what's happening to her isn't fair.
"I was getting picked on and bullied and it doesn't seem right that I'm getting charged for anything," she said. "If anything, it seems pretty messed up. I got badly injured from this incident because there were three people against one and it really affected me. I'm still emotional about it. I don't feel safe at school."
Deputy district attorney¿ Daniel Cabral said he could not discuss the case, including why Gutierrez was charged with a crime, because those involved are juveniles. However, he noted that a video that has gone viral does not capture the entire incident. Speaking in general, Cabral said he believes bullying is reprehensible, but that his job is to enforce the law.
"We recognize the severity of bullying and how truculent it can be and we know that it leads to other things," he said. "We also know that the law says that words aren't enough to justify fists."
Adam Taylor, executive director for K-12 schools operations in the West Contra Costa school district, said the students involved in the fight are receiving support through the Hercules High School health services center counselors.
A petition urging the Contra Costa district attorney to drop the charges against Hercules High student Jewlyes Gutierrez is available by visiting www.change.org and searching for "Jewlyes Gutierrez."